Systemic racism contaminated Joliette Hospital and it killed my wife

The husband of Joyce Echaquan is calling for justice for his wife, the 37-year-old mother of seven from the Atikamekw Nation who broadcast her mistreatment by staff while restrained to her hospital bed in Joliette shortly before she died.

Echaquan live-streamed her ordeal to social media on her phone. In the Facebook Live video hospital staff berate her, call her stupid, ignore her cries for help and attributed her pain to the life choices she made.

A voice on the video says, “They’re better at having sex than anything else. Especially since we’re the ones paying for this.” The person who said it turned out to be a nurse who was supposed to be caring for her.

“How many human lives will we still have to lose until we see recognition that there is systemic racism against us, our Indigenous nations,” said Echaquan’s husband Carol Dubé, in tears. “Systemic racism contaminated Joliette Hospital and it killed my wife,” he said.

Echaquan was in distress and was crying out for her husband or someone else to come and get her from Centre hopitalier de Lanaudiere (Joliette Hospital) in Quebec. She was afraid that they were giving her too much medication.

“She died in agony by people who despised her.” The people who were supposed to provide for her, humiliated her and she died in indignity when she should have had her family around her until the end, he added.

Dubé said that Echaquan’s denigration is evidence that Indigenous Peoples are treated differently. “And yet she was such a nice woman.” He told the crowd at the press conference last Friday that she loved all the little things in life.

His lawyer Jean-François Bertrand said it was only because of Echaquan’s presence of mind to turn on her camera, which captured the indignation she went through before her death, that there is proof of her treatment. Otherwise these incidents go unspoken and unpunished because there is no video evidence.

Echaquan turns on her camera as she lay dying in a hospital bed. One hand is hooked up to the IV drip. She screams intermittently. We hear the voices of at least two health care staff members who remain faceless during the seven minutes seven seconds. This version has English subtitles translated from Atikamekw, a variety of Cree, an Algonquian language and is difficult to watch. WARNING: Disturbing content.

Echaquan screams. She says, “Someone come get me,” into the camera. “It hurts! Carol, come get me. Someone come get me. They’re giving me a lot of medicine. Someone come get me, they’re giving me a lot of medicine! Hurry up!”

Voices speak in French: “I don’t know what she was asking us to do when she called us there. … We are going to leave her on the ground for a little while. … We are going to take care of you, because I think you have difficulty taking care of yourself – so we’re going to have to do it for you, okay? … Stupid, fucking dumbass! Wah, wah, wah. You’ve got to be kidding me! That there, it’s better when it’s dead. The tubing, it was stretched to the maximum. Yeah, yeah. It’s a wonder they didn’t rip out. It works really well.
(Joyce screams again, twice.)
Are you done fooling around?! Are you done?! Fuck!
(Joyce: I can’t wait to go home either. If you were in my position right now.)
Hey, you’re so fucking dumb. There, she went to get sheets. Fuck.
(Joyce: I don’t like that you’re saying that I’m fooling around.)

Well, you made terrible choices my dear. Yeah! What would they think, your children, seeing you like this? Yeah. Think about them a little.
(Joyce: That’s why I came here.)
They’re better at having sex than anything else. Especially since we’re the ones paying for this.
(Joyce screams)

Who do you think is paying for this? Keep rolling on the ground.
(Joyce groans)
No! Stop it!
(Joyce groans)
Everyone can hear you after all of this. Where’s the button on this thing? Isn’t there a button on this thing? Her fucking cell phone.
(A blonde nurse with a blue mask and gown fumbles with the camera.

On the day of the press conference, Oct. 2, the family was still not given a cause of death. Circumstances surrounding her death are still unclear despite the fact that there was a camera.

“I can’t be anything at the moment because I feel too much sadness. All I feel is sadness,” answered Dubé, in response to a question from a reporter.

Echaquan’s family has asked for justice in the form of tangible measures, not just  promises for First Nations people, Bertrand said.

They are seeking recourse to make sure that every detail of the tragic incident comes to light. “Nothing is going to remain in the shadows. We are going to hit hard,” to make an example, he said, because this has to stop. This is 2020 not the 1800s.

To that end, they are pursuing legal action against Joliette Hospital, those who were present and those who attended to Echaquan, including the two people who insulted her. Those who stood by and did nothing are just as responsible, said Bertrand.

The family will try to prove that a criminal act has been committed. They will also file a human rights complaint for the “racist and discriminatory” way in which Echaquan was treated in the last hours of her life.

On behalf of the family, Bertrand will be speaking to the nurses who were in charge and those who made the comments in the video. “Nursing is a noble and dignified profession,” he said “but these two nurses are not worthy of being nurses.” 

He says the family are not satisfied with just their dismissal from their jobs last week. They will be going directly to the Quebec Order of Nurses to ask that their professional nursing licenses be revoked. 

They will be asking for a police investigation, which they hope will lead to criminal charges being laid by the public prosecutor. Bertrand will take part in the coroner’s investigation to make sure that all relevant information is considered, and will ask for a public investigation of the treatment of members of the Atikamekw Nation at Joliette Hospital.

There are statements by members of the community who have experienced similar treatment at this same hospital, said Bertrand.

Quebec news media, including the Montreal Gazette and TVA Nouvelles, have reported that Jennifer Mac Donald saw Echaquan at the Joliette Hospital on August 25 and witnessed her being insulted and ignored by staff. Echiquan died there, just over a month later, on Sept. 28.

Mavis Jade, who put up a petition online suggested that two nurses gave Echaquan morphine when they were told not to because Echaquan was allergic to morphine and had heart problems. Jade said Echaquan’s heart stopped. She also says systemic racism is alive and well and is something that First Nations people face daily.

Chief Paul-Emilie Ottawa of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan spoke about some of the issues that came to light in the report by the Viens Commission on the relations between Indigenous communities and public services. Many references in the report were related to issues at Joliette Hospital. There were numerous testimonies from Atikamekw people in Manawan concerning racism and contempt, he said, suggesting that systemic racism has been an ongoing problem.

After Echaquan’s death, Quebec Premier François Legault said he was committed to making sure that an incident like this isn’t repeated and announced that there would be an investigation.

“There is racism in Quebec. That goes without saying,” he said, “anti-Aboriginal racism.” We have to tackle it as part of the recommendations made after the Viens public inquiry, adds Legault. But on another occasion he refused to admit to the existence of “structural racism” in the province.

This week the premier apologized to Echaquan’s family and loved ones and said the government shouldn’t be afraid to say that the Québec public service failed in its duty to Ms. Echaquan.

The coroner’s office has launched a public inquiry, in addition to an investigation by the regional health board, Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux (CISSS) de Lanaudière. Legault also referred to a report from the “taskforce on racism” to be released in the coming weeks.

Sylvie D’Amours, the minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, said the “Québec government is prepared to go forward with concrete measures,” adding, Joyce Echaquan’s death must not be in vain.

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